Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton part 2

This second reading of Birnam Wood was for the gardening book club – there is a link to growing vegetables and to the first review so I don’t want to go back over that ground. This time, I was more able to focus on the characters and how Catton dealt with them in the book.

In the first section of Birnam Wood we are immersed in the characters’ lives with little plot going on. We find out about Mira and Shelley and the relationship between them and Tony. We understand how they feel in relation to their families – outsiders – and to each other, including what it means to belong to the group. In many ways we have some archetypes which then manage to break out of the mold. Shelley was interesting in that at first I thought she was a weak second in command, hiding behind the admin and not having the courage to say that she wanted to leave the group and the way in which they lived. But as we move through the story she becomes stronger and stronger – flirting with Lemoine when she knows Mira is attracted to him in some way, coming up with a new name for the group and then asking Lemoine for more money as blackmail when the time is appropriate.

Mira, on the other hand, likes the thinking and the debating. The ideas and the action. The boring day to day admin, policies and insurance is not for her. She is full of ideals but it doesn’t take too much to let those go for the sake of money and financial stability and she uses her position in the group to make everyone follow her. As they always have done. And so off they go with money from a man who is obviously working illegally, to a piece of land that he doesn’t own to grow their vegetables. At the end Mira is also scheming enough to offer the position of CEO to Shelley saying that she was not suited to the role. Shelley knows that this will mean that it is her name that will be mentioned when all of the impending catastrophe comes to light, not Mira’s but still takes the role. So Shelley too can be bought.

Mira’s connection to the land and growing was a balm in her life, as it is for so many.

To learn even something as simple as to water the roots of a plant rather than its leaves was not to be dealt the harsh reality of cold hard fact, but rather to be let into a secret. In a garden, expertise was personal and anecdotal – it was allegorical – it was ancient – it had been handed down: one felt that gardeners across the generations were united in a kind of guild, and that every counsel had the quality of wisdom, gentle, patient, and holistic – and yet unwavering, for there was no quarrelling with the laws and tendencies of nature, no room for judgment, no dispute: the proof lay only in the plants themselves, and in the soil, and in the air, and in the harvest.


Tony stays as Tony, not bought by anyone, not trusting anyone but a little deflated by the fact that the world can’t see his brilliance. He is the character that stayed constant, and excited about the big scoop he was digging up from the property and what was going on. But he was also everything I hate about lefty intellectuals arguing about things that I struggle to understand – intersectionality, neoliberalism, comodifying and paradigms – words that exclude even though they are important concepts in our lives.

So, who were the imposters and what were their duplicities? Who benefitted and did it work out in the end?

That surely is the question to be answered in our discussion tomorrow evening.

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